The Changeling (1980)

Directed by Peter Medak

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Alright so right off the bat, this movie scared me.  It might be a silly ghost story with pretty simple effects (a creaking door, high-pitched strings, a cobwebby wheelchair), but sh*t was I tense near the end.  Maybe it was a really effective movie, or maybe it was that the movie theater speakers blew out midway through the screening.

John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to a haunted mansion in Seattle following the death of his wife and young daughter.  There he becomes fascinated with a spirit that communicates like he does, through noises and music.  While Russell serenades the large, dusty home with his own piano chords, the spirit attempts to reach him through a series of ominous, metallic thuds, shattered windows, howling winds and of course the occasional creaky door.

The Changeling could be a silly B horror film, and in some ways it is.  The end of the story, building towards a confrontation with a local senator, bears some similarities to the sudden conclusion of David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone.  This climax is one of those story points which feels shoehorned into the story to give it some kind of faux significance.  Would Russell’s journey matter as much if it didn’t lead to a famed politician?

That being said, the film does the work to make this climax feel cathartic, potent and perhaps even poignant.  The senator is introduced briefly early in the film in one of those chance encounters that only really happen in movies.  He is established in the audience’s mind only to be forgotten until he becomes an incredibly important figure in the ghostly events which dominate the film.  Once he is reintroduced to the narrative, however, he is a captivating screen presence.  Actor Melvyn Douglas breathes life into the aging character and turns him into more than a one-note villain.

Russell moves to the large Seattle mansion in order to give himself some time and space to continue grieving his own tragedy.  The death of his daughter and wife in a freak car accident is one of those horror movie backstories which often feel glossed over and underwritten.  This time you feel the weight of his loss, not just because we are allowed to see him grieve but because his despair influences how he approaches the ghost.

What you expect is for Russell to react with fear.  The noises, the closing doors and shattered windows and in particular the hidden bedroom all let us know something f*cked up happened here.  Our response is to run, but Russell’s is to analyze it further.  He’s like the character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so obsessed with the paranormal that his fascination begins to take center stage over the initial events which bred that interest.

What I’m saying is that Russell is a captivating character whose refusal to react as we would adds a degree of intrigue to a simple ghost story.  

I guess you could look at this film as a blend of Chinatown and The Conjuring.  There is a clear Noah Cross vibe to the elderly senator who becomes the brunt of the ghost’s fury and of Russell’s need for closure.  It’s because of Russell’s interest in solving the mystery behind the ghost’s existence that turns the film into something like a film noir.

The scares remain and certainly ramp up as the story moves forward, but the story has much more in common with a noir than with other ghost films I’ve seen.  It’s a murder mystery in which the victim can communicate with the man investigating the crime.

Well, we only really see and hear the ghost of a young handicapped boy in one long, eerie, suspenseful sequence involving a medium and an audio recorder.  As Russell listens to playback and slows down the recorded audio, howling sounds turn into the pleas for help of the young boy behind the ghost.

Maybe you’ll watch the movie, maybe you won’t, but either way there’s no point spoiling the mystery with which Russell becomes obsessed.  All I’ll add is that the mystery is appealing, and even once we solve that mystery the film maintains a momentum many movies tend to lose.

Up Next: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), American Made (2017), All the Real Girls (2003)

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